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Cities Dabble in Foreign Affairs

Global economy one reason US mayors and governors are becoming secretaries of state

ONE United States city convened officials from two dozen US and Canadian municipalities to draft a ``stratospheric protection accord'' to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals.

Another US city established a ``sister-city'' relationship with Havana, challenging a longstanding US trade and travel embargo on Cuba.

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Four states, meanwhile, are preparing to send legislative staffers to tutor parliamentarians in Moldova and Kazakhstan on the finer points of drafting laws.

If the GOP's ``Contract With America'' is any guide, decentralizing domestic policy is becoming the order of the day. But when it comes to foreign policy, states and cities are way ahead of the game.

Driven by the demands of the global economy, scores of states and localities have plunged into the international arena to seek out foreign markets for local companies and to woo overseas investors.

But intrepid local officials have not stopped there. Dissatisfied with policies pursued in Washington or eager to take a crack at global problems ranging from atmospheric pollution to human rights violations, they have made deep incursions into what was once a federal domain.

``It's the beginning of a fundamental shift in our thinking about international affairs,'' says Michael Shuman, director of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington. ``As international affairs become indistinguishable from local affairs, it's inevitable that communities and states will assert themselves in foreign policy.''

The phenomenon is prevalent in Europe as well, where local governments have been particularly active in providing aid, educational programs, and technical assistance to third world countries.

In the US, states and localities have played a role in foreign affairs ever since the Constitution was drafted. In 1798, Boston raised money to build two frigates to fight France, even though the US itself was at peace with the country. During the War of 1812, the governors of three states refused to dispatch state militias to do battle with invading British forces.

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But over the past 20 years the type and scope of local engagement in foreign policy have expanded dramatically.

One reason is the growing number of international issues and problems - economic, environmental, and political - that have penetrated to the state and local level. Another is that cheaper phone rates and air fares have reduced the cost of private diplomacy. The third reason is that, facing common problems, state and local officials are finding it advantageous to spend more time consulting and strategizing with their counterparts in foreign lands.

One example: In 1982, New York convened officials from 20 other states and five Canadian provinces to discuss solutions to acid rain. The meeting increased pressure on Washington to launch formal talks on the issue with Canada.

The principal magnet that has drawn cities and states into the international arena is the expansion of the global economy. With investment capital moving more freely across international borders, local officials are forced to compete for it more vigorously, even as they search out foreign markets for locally produced goods.

Dozens of states have taken on the job of identifying foreign markets, organizing overseas trade missions, negotiating trade pacts with foreign cities and countries, and even providing export-trade financing for local businesses. Forty-two states operate 153 overseas trade representative offices in 22 countries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

``In the 1990s the new focus for states and cities is, how do you sell your goods abroad and how you get Toyota to locate in your jurisdiction,'' says Dr. Shuman.

IT is a trend that is likely to be accelerated by the recent passage of two trade agreements that will expand international trade and speed the movement of capital across national frontiers.

The intrusion of states, counties, and cities in international affairs has generated little enthusiasm at the federal level. During the 1980s, for example, angry Reagan administration officials successfully sued to nullify an ordinance declaring Oakland, Calif., a ``nuclear-free zone.''

The Constitution assigns responsibility for regulating commerce, declaring war, setting up national defenses, and negotiating treaties to Congress or the president.

In practice, not only state and local officials but countless private business leaders have dabbled in foreign matters, many in technical violation of a 1799 statute - the Logan Act - that bars private citizens from engaging in unauthorized negotiations with foreign governments on issues in dispute with the US. ``If Logan were enforced to the letter, 50 million people would go to jail,'' says IPS's Shuman.

In the past, local jurisdictions have had significant success redirecting national policy. During the 1980s, for example, more than 1,000 localities passed resolutions to freeze the nuclear-arms race and ban nuclear testing, generating pressure for the start of strategic arms talks between the US and Soviet Union.

Seventy cities, 13 counties, and 25 states divested more than $20 billion from firms doing business with white-ruled South Africa, pushing Congress to adopt sanctions against the country.

Cities and citizen groups, meanwhile, raised and donated more humanitarian assistance to the Nicaraguan people during the Reagan administration than all the military aid Congress voted for contra rebels, according to Shuman.

But most local involvement in the international arena has been less controversial. Hundreds of municipalities have formed sister-city relationships, fostering good will and cultural exchanges abroad. And since the collapse of communism, state legislators have hosted and visited counterparts in dozens of emerging democracies to teach the nuts and bolts of parliamentary government.

``Because legislatures are the most representative institutions of government, state lawmakers and staff are in a unique position to support emerging democracies,'' says the NCSL's Kathy Brennan Wiggins, speaking at an International Development Conference here.

``Obviously due to constitutional limitations, legislatures and municipalities are not developing United States foreign policy,'' concludes Bill Miller of the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission. ``But they are becoming more actively involved in influencing that policy.''

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